D.C.’s charter school movement needs to look at itself in the mirror

On Monday Mayor Muriel Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, DC Public Charter School Board member Rick Cruz, DC Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson, and school representatives celebrated charters in the nation’s capital that have been ranked at Tier 1 on the 2016 to 2017 Performance Management Framework.  The affair was held at the swanky W Hotel, you know the one with the rope line used to queue people up to the rooftop bar overlooking the White House.  Apparently there were smiles and congratulatory pats on the back all around.

But across town it was a very different story.  News has come out recently courtesy of WAMU and NPR that the one hundred percent 2017 graduation rate reported at DCPS’s Ballou High School was a sham. From the piece by Kate McGee:

“An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents. The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school. . . Another internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate.”

We do not know how many of the 164 seniors really should have been held back.  This is because the administration of the school apparently pressured teachers to pass students who should have failed courses.  The previously highly regarded Ballou principal Yetunde Reeves has now been reassigned.

Yes, while the 51 school leaders were gathered around sipping coffee and receiving trophies, I’m confident not one word was spoken about our collective avoidance of even talking about the situation at Ballou.  Not one of these public charter schools or the 23 that already operate in Ward 8 where Ballou is located, or the leadership of the DC PCSB, has even hinted that they would like to help these kids that have been abandoned.  Is it because of who they are or where they live?

The charter gathering comes on the heels of news that the United Medical Center board of directors has decided that it will not re-open its maternity ward that was shuttered not too long ago by  the D.C. Department of Health.  This leaves women living in Wards 7 and 8 without a hospital where they can give birth.  In the report by the Washington Post’s Peter Jamison, D.C. Councilman Vincent Gray reacted this way to the decision:

“D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council’s health committee, said the board’s action ‘sends a powerfully negative message’ to the poor and predominantly African American residents of Southeast Washington.

‘It says that in terms of the allocation and equity of services, the people on the East End of the city are seen as not sufficiently worthy to have available to them one of the most important services a population can have.'”

So what message does the charter sector’s ignoring of the situation at Ballou sent to these same members of our community?   It’s just tough luck, not our problem, not our kids.

This is not why charters were created in D.C.

A private school scholarship for every child living in D.C.? That’s what Senator Cruz and Representative Meadows want

The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit revealed on Thursday that Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Mark Meadow have introduced a bill in the United States Congress called the Educational Freedom Accounts Act that would offer a private school scholarship to any child residing in the District of Columbia.  Currently, D.C. has America’s only federally funded private school voucher plan, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, but it is limited to those families living in poverty.  About 1,100 pupils currently participate in the OSP.  This legislation would permit any student in grades Kindergarten through 12 to take advantage of a private school scholarship, and depending upon family income, it would provide 80 to 90 percent of the money allocated annually to teach kids through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  The dollars would be deposited in individual educational savings accounts.

The timing of this news comes as an interesting coincidence.  Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the passing away from brain cancer of Joseph E. Robert, Jr.  When he was alive Mr. Robert created the Washington Scholarship Fund that awarded private school tuition for low-income children.  When the federal voucher program was enacted the same organization became the administrator.  He was a steadfast fighter for the continuation of the OSP, even in the face of eight years of effort by the Obama administration to shut it down.  Fortunately, with Serving Our Children now running the OSP, it is expected to at least triple in size.

The only problem I can see with the bill is the proposed funding level.  Ms. Balingit points out in her article that today’s per student funding is equal to about $9,500 a year.  Therefore, a middle class family with a child in the sixth grade, for example, would receive 80 percent of this amount which equals $7,500; lower than the $8,653 currently paid under the OSP.  Moreover, the existing OSP scholarship levels are already too low considering the high cost of many private schools in D.C.

But the introduction of this act is still exceedingly good news.  After more than 20 years of aggressive public school reform in the nation’s capital, student proficiency rates for reading and math stand at a dismal thirty percent.  For people living in poverty those numbers are in the 20s.  I have been making the case for a supercharging of school choice in this town to get us out of this rut.  Thankfully, Senator Cruz and Congressman Meadows have answered my call.


Ballou High School principal reassigned

On Monday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that the principal of DCPS’s Ballou High School, Yetunde Reeves, has been reassigned to another position outside of that facility in the aftermath of a WAMU and National Public Radio report about possible fraud around the handing out of diplomas.  When the story first broke last week, Chancellor Antwan Wilson said he stood by Ms. Reeves and that she should keep her job.  No information has been provided as to the reason Mr. Wilson quickly changed his mind.  There are at least three investigations now in progress regarding whether the school’s administration pressured teachers to pass students who should have failed classes.  Research by WAMU and NPR found, among other irregularities, that fifty percent of pupils were allowed to graduate in 2016 even after being absent for more than three months of the term.

But my reason for writing is not to rehash the problems at Ballou.  I’m interested in the fact that, without any public input, a major change in leadership was made at the school right in the midst of severe controversy.  I’m focused on this action because of my long-term involvement with charter schools.

For years I’ve heard the criticism that charters are privately run with public funding.  In her fine article about D.C. charters that appeared recently in the City Paper, writer Rachel Cohen repeats the bromide.  She writes:

“Charter schools are private entities authorized to provide public education, free of many rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools. In D.C. all charters are nonprofits, though they can hire for-profit companies to run their schools.”

I think we need to stop saying things like the statement above.  Charter schools are public schools.  They have to accept all students that come to them.  If they are over-enrolled they need conduct a lottery to see who gets in.  They cannot have admission requirements and it is against the law for them to discriminate regarding enrollment, including the fact that a student may have a disability.

It is true, as Ms. Cohen states, that charters are nonprofits.  As 501(c)(3)’s they are governed by boards of directors that provide this service on a volunteer basis.  These individuals are responsible for the school’s performance. They are generally members of the community.  Of course, here in the nation’s capital, charter schools are ultimately accountable to the DC Public Charter School Board.

I would argue that the public has more control over a charter school than a traditional one.  If a parent has a complaint about something at a DCPS facility, how easy do think it is to reach Mr. Wilson?  I bet it’s practically impossible.  But if a parent has a problem with a charter, he or she can go right to the board chair.  During my years in this role I fielded many such concerns.  In fact, one of the roles of the DCPCSB has been to ensure that these issues are addressed.

Charter school parents also vote with their feet.  If they don’t like what’s going on at the school they can take their kids, and the substantial money associated with teaching their children, and enroll at another facility.  DCPS parents also have the power in our city to move their child but because these are neighborhood schools, there may not be another school located in close proximity to their homes.

The transfer of principal Reeves is highly instructional.  When it comes to oversight of our city’s schools they are both in fact public.  


As predicted, the unionization of Cesar Chavez Prep PCS is not going well

Last Friday, Liana Loewus of Education Week reported that on the day her story appeared the teaching staff of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School Prep Campus took to the streets during their lunch break with signs protesting  the administration’s failure to negotiate with them as is required now that they are part of a union.  Apparently, the school’s leadership has continued to make changes without including them as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Ms. Loewus quotes Christian Herr, a science instructor who led the initiative to bring in the American Federation of Teachers affiliated union, reacting to the situation:

“By law after our vote, any changes to our working conditions have to be negotiated with us. Our board continues to make significant changes—adding job duties without additional compensation, things like that—without bargaining with us.”

The school’s principal Kourtney Miller disagreed with this assessment in an email:

“These are entirely their accusations, they haven’t been validated by the NLRB, and we disagree with their complaints.”

As author and philosopher Ayn Rand would state, in this situation both sides are acting perfectly consistent with their nature.  Charter schools are successful by moving with dexterity to rapidly adapt to fluctuating conditions so that they can provide the absolute best education possible for their students.  Unions, alternatively, fail when it comes to adapting to change quickly, instead institutionalizing modifications to work rules through a legal agreement.

This is exactly the reason that unions and charter schools should not be mentioned in the same sentence.  Because each side is operating according to their inherent nature, the environment will never improve.  As could have been easily anticipated, the Chavez union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Since the reality over there will eternally not get much better, the Chavez board of directors should take a step emulating hero Howard Roark in Ms. Rand’s novel The Fountainhead and shutter the facility.  Now.

Time to turn management of Ballou High School over to a high performing charter

Last Tuesday, WAMU and National Public Radio released an article by Kate McGee detailing extremely serious allegations regarding fraud in allowing many of the students who graduated from Ballou High School to receive diplomas.  From the story:

“An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents. The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school. . . Another internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate.”

The school had touted the fact that all of its 164 seniors had graduated and been accepted to college.

But after WAMU and NPR spoke to approximately 12 current and former teachers at the school and four recent graduates, it was revealed that instructors felt pressure from their superiors to ensure that students passed.  They were told not to fail students and some stated that if they resisted their contracts were not renewed.  Their review uncovered other irregularities around student eligibility for graduation.

This is disgusting.  Obviously, numerous seniors were matriculated without being able to read, write, or perform basic arithmetic.  Standardized test score proficiency rates at Ballou are 22 percent in reading and 10 percent in math.  What is also highly upsetting is that it looks like the current DCPS administration is unequipped to fix the situation.  Chancellor Antwan Wilson has asserted that Ballou principal Yetunde Reeves should stay in her position.  Jane Spence, DCPS Chief of Secondary Schools had this to say, again from the WAMU piece, “It is expected that our students will be here every day, but we also know that students learn material in lots of different ways. So we’ve started to recognize that students can have mastered material even if they’re not sitting in a physical space.”

One current Ballou teacher had a different view on the subject.  “It’s oppressive to the kids because you’re giving them a false sense of success.”

Yesterday, D.C. Mayor Bowser announced that two investigations have begun into the allegations at Ballou, one by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and another by two deputy chancellors.  David Grosso, chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee, will hold a hearing on the matter.  But I’m afraid all of this is too little too late.  Ms. Bowser bristled when I suggested to her recently that D.C.’s high performing charter schools should take over traditional schools that are not making academic progress.  Perhaps now she will give my idea more serious consideration.


Councilman Grosso’s bid to manage D.C. public schools

Yesterday, At-Large D.C. Councilman David Grosso introduced the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017.  The bill would:

  • Limit the use of suspension and expulsion in kindergarten through 8th grade to instances of physical and emotional injury, whether actual, attempted, or threatened.
  • Ban suspensions in high school for minor incidents like disobedience or uniform violations.
  • Require schools–both DCPS and charters–to have discipline policies that avoid exclusion, address bias, and seek the root causes of misbehavior.

In yesterday’s press release Mr. Grosso provides the reasoning behind the legislation:

“According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, over 7,000 D.C. students—about 1 in 10 kindergarten through 12th grade students—were suspended or expelled during the 2015-2016 school year.  OSSE also found that African-American students in D.C. are seven times more likely to be suspended than their peers and students who are economically disadvantaged, receiving special education services, or at-risk of academic failure were twice as likely to get sent home.”  According to the Councilman,  “We know how negatively suspensions and expulsions affect the students pushed out of school—they are more likely to fail academically, to drop out, and to end up involved in the criminal justice system.  We need to change our approach to set every student up for academic success.”

Although Mr. Grosso states that he has been working on this since last July, and that “over 25 charter LEAs and DCPS have weighed in, and I have spoken directly with teachers, school leaders, parents, students, advocates, lawyers, researchers, and other experts about the language in the bill,” the reaction against it by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, and Antwan Wilson, DCPS Chancellor, was swift and unequivocal.  In a joint statement issued on the same day that Mr. Grosso made his announcement they write:

“We’re all united in the common mission of equipping our students with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to contribute to our community and lead productive, vibrant lives. We want all children to be in school every day, but when suspensions are necessary, school leaders are the best experts in making discipline decisions.”

“School leaders must make discipline decisions every day, considering the affected student, classmates, and the school community. These decisions are made with careful consideration by experienced educators who are closest to the situation and who best know all the individuals involved.”

“Our city should support schools in tackling the underlying issues facing students, rather than mandating a one-size-fits-all-approach.”

“We have worked hard to address suspensions in a thoughtful way. Over the past five years, suspensions have fallen nearly 5 percentage points in both DCPS and public charter schools. This is the result of leadership at the school level, attention from education leaders, and the desire to make good on our promises to educate and equip students for the future. Early numbers this year show the trend continuing.”

“We believe addressing factors outside of the school building would yield results that are more meaningful, more authentic, and less counterproductive than legislative restrictions on school disciplinary practices.”

For all of us who feel passionately about school, sector, and parental autonomy this would be a perfect time to contact Mr. Grosso’s office.  The telephone number is 202-724-8105.

D.C. charter board redeems itself with decisions on 10 year school renewals

I’ve gone into exhaustive detail regarding the weak year that the DC Public Charter School Board has been having regarding its decisions, exemplified by the back and forth over whether one of its highest performing schools, DC Prep PCS, should be permitted to replicate.  But last night the body took important steps toward rectifying its missteps and setting its course on solid footing.

The opportunity for a correction presented itself in the form of a pair of 10 year reviews.  Both Excel PCS and Achievement Prep PCS were on the agenda.  Both schools were represented by attorney Stephen Marcus which is a clear signal that things for the charters are not about to go well.  Up first was Excel.

The school had committed to an average score over the last five years on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework of 45 percent.  The actual number the school recorded was 41.4 percent which is not far off.  However, for the most recent year, the 2016-to-2017 term, it scored 36.7 percent, the lowest result since its opening in 2008.  The all-girls charter teaching 643 students in Ward 8 has been plagued with instability in its leadership team.  I can remember almost exactly three years ago showing up at a PCSB monthly meeting and being surprised that Excel was on the agenda to discuss enrolling students who were not D.C. residents without charging them tuition and management staff changes.  The school was even investigated by The Office of the State Superintendent of Education over the tuition issue.  It appears that management at the facility has been a problem ever since.

I think we have all lost our patience with Excel.  The PARCC Assessment for the school demonstrates that it is performing below the state average for reading and math for those scoring in the career and college readiness rankings of four and five. These results are particularly low compared to the city mean for females, the sub-group the school was created to serve.  Especially disappointing is that for the last three years the proficiency rate in both subjects for students with disabilities is zero.  The board voted to begin the charter revocation process for Excel which is the correct decision.

The story is much more complicated when it comes to Achievement Prep.  This charter was once one of the academically strongest performing middle schools in the nation’s capital, serving children living in poverty in Ward 8 now with an enrollment of 987 pupils.  It seemed like the founder and chief executive officer of the school Shantelle Wright could do no wrong.  But in 2013, Achievement Prep took over the all-boys school Septima Clark PCS in a deal brokered by Scott Pearson, PCSB executive director, Josh Kern, managing member of The TenSquare Group, and James Costan, Septima Clark’s board chair, as it was also adding an elementary school and growing its middle school.  I wrote article after article arguing against the move stating that Achievement Prep was growing at a furious rate which I feared would harm its academic standing, even meeting with Mr. Kern and Mr. Costan to press my point.

Apparently this is exactly what occurred.  The elementary school has been ranked as a tier three school for the two years that it has been graded under the PARCC assessment.  The middle school campus has also seen its PMF score dive, making it just barely a tier two facility.  The charter board could have begun the revocation process against Achievement Prep since the elementary school is not meeting its charter goals and is up for its five year review.  However, as is exactly the right move, the PCSB will instead enter into a charter agreement with Achievement Prep that will set strict targets for both campuses, but that is focused primarily on the elementary school.  Closure of one or both sites could occur if these goals are not obtained.

Everyone involved in the progression of Achievement Prep, including Mr. Pearson, Mr. Kern, Mr. Costan, Ms. Wright, and the school’s board were taking steps they thought best to serve disadvantaged kids living in our town.  But in this instance, it was all too much too soon.  Last evening, you could see this realization written clearly on Ms. Wright’s face.




D.C. charters must appeal funding inequity lawsuit ruling

Patricia Brantley, the chief executive officer of Friendship Public Charter School, and Irene Holtzman, the executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, wrote an excellent editorial that appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post regarding the recent decision by a federal judge throwing out the funding inequity lawsuit brought by charters against the city.  It makes the point that if you were to see children playing on a public park equally enjoying the amenities you would have no idea that, when it comes to their education, there is a substantial difference regarding the funding the school they are enrolled in receives depending upon whether it is a part of DCPS or a charter.

Charters receive less money.  Much less.  The disparity in revenue is estimated to have equaled $770 million from 2008 to 2015.  This corresponds to $1,600 to $2,600 fewer dollars per student per year.

The fundamental problem, and it is truly fundamental, is that the regular schools are provided revenue and services by the Mayor or the city council outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  But the 1995 School Reform Act, which dictates how schools cover operating expenses, could not be clearer on the mechanism for providing taxpayer money to all public schools:

“Annual payment under paragraph (1) of this subsection shall be calculated by multiplying a uniform dollar amount used in the formula established under such paragraph by:

(A) The number of students calculated under § 38-1804.02 that are enrolled at District of Columbia public schools, in the case of the payment under paragraph (1)(A) of this subsection; or

(B) The number of students calculated under § 38-1804.02 that are enrolled at each public charter school, in the case of a payment under paragraph (1)(B) of this subsection.”

In other words, revenue for both DCPS and charters is to be provided by law though the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula based upon a dollar amount multiplied by the number of kids enrolled.

Because the law, and the intention behind the law, are so clear, charters really have no choice but to appeal the court’s decision.  They cannot give up because people involved in our local charter movement never give up.  These are the same individuals who find teachers when there are none to be had, obtain facilities when no buildings are available, and make payroll when the bank account has been expended.  I have known these brave souls for more than 20 years.  I have been on the other end of the telephone line when it appeared all hope of continuing was lost, only to find them fighting to keep going for another day.

Over 41,500 pupils, 47 percent of all public school students, are depending upon them not giving up.

One judge made one bad decision.  So what?  There are plenty more judges out there.



D.C. charter board releases 2017 school quality reports

Yesterday, the DC Public Charter School Board released the results of the 2016 to 2017 school quality reports, which demonstrate school rankings on the organization’s Performance Management Framework.  The overall takeaway from this measure is that more students than ever, 47.4 percent of all pupils attending charters, are enrolled in Tier 1 schools, which are those obtaining the highest scores.  This is an extremely positive trend.

Let’s focus on some of the schools doing some great academic work.  Among those recording the greatest scores are:

  1. BASIS DC PCS (High School) – 95.5%
  2. Washington Latin PCS – Upper School – 89.1%
  3. Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS – 87.7%
  4. KIPP DC – Connect Academy PCS – 87.4%
  5. Cedar Tree Academy PCS – 86.8%

Here are the top five charters with the highest results who are educating a student body composed of at least 60 percent of children living in poverty:

  1. Friendship PCS – Blow Pierce Elementary School – 79.0%
  2. Early Childhood Academy PCS – 69.9%
  3. Cedar Tree Academy PCS – 86.8%
  4. Friendship PCS – Blow Pierce Middle School – 65.9%
  5. SEED of Washington DC (High School) – 66.1%

Finally, listed below are those charters that have been categorized at Tier 1 from the time the PMF was introduced in 2012:

  1. Washington Latin PCS – Upper School
  2. Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS
  3. DC Prep PCS – Edgewood Middle School
  4. Two Rivers PCS – 4th Street
  5. Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS
  6. KIPP DC – College Preparatory Academy PCS

A few takeaways for me.  I’m extremely impressed with the number of Friendship PCS campuses, five, on the Tier 1 list.  My friends Susan Schaeffler and Allison Fansler are doing a great job at KIPP DC PCS with 11 campuses graded as Tier 1.  DC Bilingual PCS is there; I just recently interviewed its head of school Daniela Anello.  I have also interviewed the leaders of Mundo Verde PCS, Thurgood Mashall PCS, DC International PCS, Appletree Early Leaning Center PCS, Carlos Rosario International PCS, Washington Yu Ying PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, Two Rivers PCS, E.L. Haynes PCS, and the academic director of Center City PCS, which are all 2017 Tier 1 schools.  Just last year I spoke to LaTonya Henderson, the executive director of Cedar Tree Academy PCS.  This school nearly closed years ago.  Coming up is a conversation with the head of school for Sela PCS which is also in this category.

I am so proud of these institutions that are demonstrating that the academic achievement gap really can be closed.  Cheers!

One surprising finding is the number of Tier 3 schools.  Last year there were only four.  This year there are nine.  Some of the names on this list are also jolting because we associate them in our minds as high performers such as Harmony PCS, Democracy Prep Congress Heights PCS, Achievement Preparatory Academy PCS – Wahler Place Elementary School, Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy – Parkside Middle School, and Seed PCS middle school, although its high school is in the Tier 1 category.  Two of these charters are in this tier for the second year in a row, Achievement Prep PCS and National Collegiate Preparatory PCS, which is troubling.

To end this discussion on a positive note, Rocketship PCS is un-ranked this year because last term was its first, but its PMF score demonstrates that it would be in the first Tier, a commitment it made when it opened.





DC public high school graduation rates rise; charters and DCPS equal

The four-year high school graduation rate in the District of Columbia reached a new high, Mayor Bowser announced yesterday.  For the city’s traditional schools the percentage came in at 73.2 percent, only 1.8 percentage points away from the 75 percent goal established under the strategic plan of former Chancellor Kaya Henderson.  When she aimed for the 75 percent number, the four-year high school graduation rate was only at 61 percent.  The statistic is 3.2 percent greater than the previous school year.  The new Chancellor, Antwan Wilson has established a five year goal of 85 percent.

Public charter schools also saw its graduation rate go up, but by a smaller variance.  The measure is at 73.4 percent, compared to 72.9 percent for 2016.  Therefore, the charter sector has now reached parity with DCPS regarding both graduation and standardized test score proficiency rates.  About one-third of all public students taking the PARCC examination last term came in at the college and career readiness ranking of four or five.

Dr. Darren Woodruff, the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board, reacted this way to the improved graduation rates:  “District public school students are doing better than ever before.  More students are graduating and the number attending top-performing Tier 1 public charter schools continues to rise for the third year in a row.”

Today, at 11 a.m., the DCPB will release the latest results of its Performance Management Framework results that tier charter schools from one to three.

The Mayor had this to say about the findings:  “Ten years ago, our city committed to giving all students a fair shot at success, and today, these historic graduation rates are more proof that our efforts and investments are paying off. These graduation rates are a reminder that when we have high expectations for our young people and we back up those expectations with robust programs and resources, our students can and will achieve at high levels.”

The results also say much about school choice in the nation’s capital.  Before charter schools were introduced 21 years ago, the four-year high school graduation rate was in the 40s. Doesn’t this fact make the argument that choice should be increased as quickly and efficiently as possible?